Morris and his helper, John Smith, experimented with indigo and other natural dyes but were unable to get the colors that Morris desired. So he used synthetic dyes instead.
In 1854, Morris bought some nitric acid from a local chemist and began experimenting with it. He made several different colors using this acid and eventually came up with four new reds (one of which was carmine) and three blues that he could not reproduce with natural dyes. He then started making his own dyes by mixing various substances in an acidic solution. One of these new dyes was called "mordant" because it required another color to be dyed first before it would color itself. For example, if you wanted to make gold clothing, you would first dye some green clothes using the morant-dye and then wash them to remove any uncolored dye. The mordant kept the gold fibers from fading when washed.
By the late 1850's, William Morris was able to produce many more colors than anyone had ever seen before. He also invented new techniques for combining colors on one piece of cloth so they didn't have to be mixed beforehand like indigo and carmine are.
Morris designs often employed up to twenty distinct colors, although some were more complicated. The most popular design had sixteen squares of different colors arranged in four rows of four squares each. This is known as the 16th square pattern.
Other common patterns include the 13th square (with only seven squares), the 12th (with only six), and the 11th (with only five). There are also less common patterns with only three or four squares. It is estimated that about one in ten carpets made in Europe at the time were designed by Martin Morris.
Later in his life, after he was appointed court carpenter to Queen Victoria, Morris added a fifth row to some of his earlier designs to create a "longer" carpet. He never designed a carpet with only four rows of color, but several manufacturers produced them under his name. The long-row carpets are harder to find today, but can be identified by measuring the distance between the outer edges of each colored square.
The number of patterns used by Morris is very large; it is estimated that he used every possible combination of colors except red and black.
William Morris was attracted by textiles and the skills required to achieve the designs he observed and appreciated in antique furniture throughout his life. Textile arts were developing at a rapid rate in Europe at that time, and new techniques were being invented all the time. Also, many exotic materials were becoming available after years of exploration in Africa and Asia.
Morris believed that craftsmen had a responsibility to protect and improve on traditional methods and tools before they became obsolete. He also felt that beautiful objects made from fine materials were worth making even if they did not have much practical use. Indeed, some of his designs were actually meant to be used as wallpaper or carpeting rather than clothes.
Thus, textile art was very important to him, and he spent a large part of his life learning about fabrics and experimenting with different techniques until he was satisfied with what he created.
He started his own business in 1877, which eventually became one of the largest manufacturers of fabrics in England. He introduced many innovations in the field of textile manufacturing including chemical dyes for wool and cotton, rayon (a plastic material derived from wood pulp) for stockings, and chenille yarn for furnishing.
The blue in these prints is derived from a plant called indigo. The blue dye used in Morris prints in nineteenth-century Britain was most likely made from indigo plants grown in India. Although there are other dyes that can be used to color cloth, such as cochineal (a red dye produced by insects) and carminic acid (a pink dye derived from coal tar), they do not produce the deep, intense colors that indigo does.
Indigo has been used for clothing coloring since at least the 1650s. It was popular among the upper class in Europe and America. Blue jeans were first manufactured in 1853 by Cyrus Avery who obtained his blue pigment from indigo plants. They were soon after copied by John Woodruff who got his pigment from shellfish. Today, indigo is still used to color denim.
Indigo was very expensive because it had to be harvested by hand and processed into a powder before it could be used to color clothes. This is why printed fabrics were often more expensive than dyed ones. However, indigo has many advantages over other dyes including being water resistant, light fast, and long lasting.
There are several varieties of indigo used today that are not completely natural.
Morris, more than any other British decorative arts artist, brought the outdoor world within through the various wallpapers and fabrics he created throughout his career. He used inspiration from the outdoors and hedgerow plants to populate his patterns, and he drew inspiration from old-fashioned garden flowers to shape his designs. He also made use of other materials, such as leather and metal, in his work.
Morris was born on May 2, 1834 in Chiswick, London, the son of a wallpaper designer. From an early age, he showed an interest in drawing and painting, and at the age of 16, he worked as an apprentice painter and decorator with a firm called Wallpaper & Carpet Designers. During this time, he learned how to design wallpaper patterns, which at the time were done by hand using a stenciling tool called a "pencil."
In 1857, after several years working for different firms, he set up on his own, designing wallpaper, carpets, and fabrics. His first major commission came in 1858 when he designed a paper for the Houses of Parliament. This led to many more projects for government offices and commercial buildings across England, and by 1865, he had become one of the most influential designers of his time. That same year, he opened his own studio and hired assistants to help him make patterns faster.